Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited: The Secular and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder
© 1945 Evelyn Waugh
350 pages

My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time. These memories, which are my life--for we possess nothing certainly except the past--were always with me.

Some time ago after finishing off a season of Downton Abby, I queried Goodreads:  is there a Downtonesque book?  Its readers recommended, among others, Bridehead Revisited. After learning about it, of course,   I seemed to hear it mentioned incessantly and decided to give it a try.  Glad am I that I did, because Brideshead proved to be one of the most beautifully written novels I’ve ever taken on.  It is a sad, wistful novel, one man’s recollection of his time spent with a noble family in decline, provoked when his battalion is ordered to take over their home during the Second World War and he realizes he has tread this ground before.   Brideshead is a love story, but without the kind of resolution expected of one. The tale is saturated in beauty; characters linger over rich meals and fragrant brandies,   and bare their souls in sunlit salons and gilded smoking rooms.  The sensuality would please a Dorian Gray.  It helps that the narrator, Charles Ryder, is a painter of architecture and relishes it for its timelessness, a created work that combines the efforts of generations.

Beauty was the main attraction of Ryder to the Marchmain family, exhibited strikingly in the person of Ryder’s friend Sebastian and his sister Julia.  The Marchmains are the main source of interest to the reader, beside the writing, for Ryder himself has only a superficial presence.  Religion permeates the book, as the Marchmains are Catholics; their religion creates an identity for them as ‘others’ within England.  The religious sense is innate, not outwardly pious. The main characters describe one another as half-heathen,  even at their most cavalier there is a seriousness to their foibles, a sense of wonder. They may act merrily cynical, but there  are convictions at the root of their characters that have the ability to produce fruit at the right moment.  A sense of grace ties the two halves of this book together, separated even as they are by years. A tale of one character's slide into alcoholism, to his family's grief, and another tale of discovered love, are woven together by it.  While much of the story is sad, most of the characters find relief for their private burdens, and Waugh cuts the emotional intensity with comic scenes and descriptions.  Some of it borders on silly,  other mingles the laughs with some woe, like the description of a father greeting his son with “the usual air of mild regret”. There are surely depths to the story that can’t be plumbed in one read alone, but there will be others, for Waugh’s writing here, bordering on the lyrical, is beautifully arresting itself.

=================== EXCERPTS ===============
“Two wives despaired of him,’ he said. ‘When he got engaged to Sylvia, she made it a condition that he should take the cure at Zurich. And it worked. He came back in three months a different man. And he hasn't touched a drop since, even though Sylvia walked out on him.’
‘Why did she do that?’
“Well, poor Charlie got rather a bore when he stopped drinking. But that’s not really the point of the story.”

More even than the work of the great architects, I loved buildings that grew silently with the centuries, catching and keeping the best of each generation, while time curbed the artist's pride and the Philistine's vulgarity, and repaired the clumsiness of the dull workman.

The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what's been taught and what's been left out. But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion you didn't know existed.

"Light one for me, will you?"
It was the first time in my life that anyone had asked  this of me, and as I took the cigarette from my lips and put it in hers I caught a thin bat's squeak of sexuality, inaudible to any but me.

"Oh, Mummy, must I see him? There'll be a scene if I do."
"Nonsense, Julia, you twist that poor man round your finger."
So Julia went into the library and came out an hour later engaged to be married.

The Picture of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde.
A Seperate Peace, John Knowles

When Gourmands Write Fiction

I rejoiced in the Burgundy. How can I describe it? The Pathetic Fallacy resounds in all our praise of wine. For centuries every language has been strained to define its beauty, and has produced only wild conceits or the stock epithets of the trade. This Burgundy seemed to me, then, serene and triumphant, a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned another wisdom than his. By chance I met this same wine again, lunching with my wine merchant in St. James's Street, in the first autumn of the war; it had softened and faded in the intervening years, but it still spoke in the pure, authentic accent of its prime and, that day at Paillard's with Rex Motttram years before, it whispered faintly, but in the same lapidary phrase, the same words of hope.

p. 175, Brideshead Revisited. Evelyn Waugh.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The First Congress

The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government
© 2016 Fergus Bordewich
416 pages

The first attempt at creating an American confederation resulted in a chronically bankrupt and impotent organization which no one took seriously. So mightily did it flounder that a convention was called to address its structural problems, and by way of solution they created the Constitution. Thus did the American experiment begin anew,  but a superior legal start didn't guarantee steady success. Ultimately its success would depend on the men responsible for turning ink on paper into a functional government, principally the men of the first congress who had a world of policy to establish and precedents to set.   Drawing on journals and official records, Mr. Bordewich has produced here a month-by-month chronicle of the first congress’s work in and out of session, as sectional rivalries and opposing philosophies of government went head to head for dominance. Ultimately progress came through  deal-making, and some vital decisions were made not on the floor of Federal Hall, but in the dining rooms of the influential.  Bordewich succeeds in turning months of argument amid miserable weather into a fascinating narrative.

The challenges facing the first government of the United States were outstanding: the union consisted of eleven states, many with hazy western borders. Along those borders were encamped restive Indian nations, notably the Creek, and the armed forces of Britain. The states bickered with one another over water resources and were themselves awash in debt,   North Carolina and Rhode Island had yet to agree to adopt the Constitution, and the presumably-elected president George Washington was confined to bed.    Major political issues faced the nation: what to do with the debt, for instance, how to strike in practice the balance of power between the Legislature and the executive, where to established the federal capital, and what do to with the Indians. To make matters worse, the Quakers insisted on sending petitions to Congress to address slavery, even though the Constitution forbad federal action on it for twenty years after its adoption.   Each of these issues had powerful personalities eager to fight with one another.  The siting of a national capital, for instance, wasn’t merely a division between north and South.   New York and Pennsylvania were as jealous of one another as they were of the South; even John Adams loathed the thought of gracing Philadelphia or its environs with the capital.   Issues like the debt were not simply about money:  the question of whether the Federal government should take responsibility for the individual war debts of the states turned Madison from a Federalist into a Republican: he knew if the federal government took responsibility for that debt,  it would assume greater authority over the states themselves.   Slavery’s volatility needs no introduction, driving the union as it did to war.

Arguing these issues are a score of personalities, some famous but others generally overlooked. Madison is central, of course, as one of the Constitution’s key contributors and the man later tasked with presenting amendments proposed by the States to Congress. He dominates early, functioning as Washington’s prime minister in the House,  though later loses ground to Hamilton as financial matters rear their head first in the matter of the assumption of state debt, and later in the establishment of a national bank.  Other notable characters are Oliver Ellsworth, who helped establish the structure of the federal and Supreme Courts, and an antifederalist William. Maclay whose diary is a major source.   Washington and John Adams, though not congressmen,  also feature.

Bordewich's favor is with the victors,  seeing the triumph of a strong executive and Hamilton’s financial schemes over agrarian skepticism as a step forward for the United States in moving toward enlightened, modern capitalism.   His bias is not overt, though one might make a drinking game out of his referring to the Hemingses as enslaved.  In addition to the thoughtful history that makes it clear how fundamental some of the Congress’ decisions were,  Bordewich’s history also shares quite a few fascinating little tidbits. Poor Rhode Island, for instance, was bullied into joining the Union:  late into the first Congress’ term, the Rhode Island legislature failed to ratify the Constitution. Not only did Washington snub them during his tour, but the surrounding states ceased communication and transportation into the little state.   Also of interest: Thomas Jefferson learned of his appointment as Secretary of State only by reading the papers when he arrived at home!  

Bordewich’s history isn’t quite as lively as Joseph Ellis, but it is very close, a significant feat  given its greater ambition.  It makes the first Congress’ accomplishments clear, not only in establishing a new national government from the ground up –  figuring out what was needed, and how to fit it within the limits of the Constitution – but in creating union  through compromise, the most famous example  being a southern site for the capital in exchange for the wealthy cotton states agreeing to let the federal government assume the collective debt of the states.   The First Congress is superior popular history, serious, but personable still.


Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Scotch-Irish

The Scotch-Irish: A Social History
© 1989 James Leyburn
397 pages

        Though they have long ceased to be a distinct ethnic group outside of Appalachia, for years the greatest non-English minority in the United States were the Scotch-Irish.   Theirs is a history riven with politics, for they were created by it and became the shapers of it once they moved to America.  The Scotch-Irish appraises not only their political history, however, but the evolution of their character, distinct culture, and social institutions. It is a triptych, the story of a people told across three lands.   The story begins in Scotland, a place slow to join the Renaissance, but quick to grasp the Reformation. Scotland indeed became a  hotbed of diehard Presbyterianism, and as the  Crown began supporting the established Anglican church more firmly, it drove Puritans into the Netherlands and Presbys into Scotland.   Of course, the Crown wanted more Protestants in Ireland; a good strong community of them could withstand Gaelic wiles and serve to consolidate the Crown's position. The Ulster plantation soon developed a culture distinct from Scotland's, despite constant emigration from it, and Leyburn devotes particular attention to the social power of the Presbyterian church as it branched out.  Ultimately, rent hikes would drive many of the "Ulster Scots" to America, where their loathing for the crown and aggressive westward rambling would spur on the Revolution.  Leyburn  offers state-by-state tracking of the Scotch-Irish as they grew in number began filling the interior, making this social history of immense value to students of colonial history, complete with deep background in Irish and Scottish history.


Friday, March 25, 2016

The Road to Little Dribbling

The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain
© 2015 Bill Bryson
380 pages

"When people asked me where I was bound, I could gaze toward the northern horizon with a set expression and say 'Cape Wrath, God willing'. I imagined my listeners giving a low whistle of admiration and reply 'Gosh, that's a long way.' I would nod in grim acknowledgment. 'Not even sure if there's a tearoom,' I would add."

p. 14

Bill Bryson is turning into a cranky old man, evidenced by his ramblings on The Road to Little Dribbling.  Bryson's mark is funny travelogues, a recording of the people and places he visits as he wanders through Australia or the Appalachian trail, supported by errant reminiscences that such sights inspire.  At the outset of Road to Little Dribbling, Bryson is about to take the British citizenship test after having lived in England for several decades. (He encountered a stray English rose, and married her.)  Rendered nostalgic by the prospect of finally making his relationship with Britain formal, Bryson decides to take a tour of the isle, traveling from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath, the longest NS axis he could figure.  While he earnestly does not want to repeat his journey in  Notes from a Small Island, in which he repeated the journey he made the first time he ever traveled to Britain (Bill is evidently short for Bilbo) --  the title of it comes up a lot, like the expression "Back in my day" in the mouth of a marooned resident of a nursing home.

The book is taken up with him riding trains, suffering car rentals, and going on long walks, musing and having interactions with people that typically end in him thinking nasty things about them.  Herein lies the big splotch on this book: either I never picked up on it before, or Bryson is growing increasingly nasty with age, because he's constantly contemplating the murder  or convenient death of people. They don't even have to be people who are failing to deliver customer service; they can be politicians he's heard wicked things about on the telly.   What he finds is is that while there are many signs of things going downhill -- old women stiffing on tips, train routes being neglected, American-style sprawl, buildings literally falling into the sea because of coastal erosion that is surely the government's fault, somehow --    Britain has mostly remained a charming place. (Except for Scotland, which has gotten too weirdly nationalistic for his culinary taste.)

 The Road to Little Dribbling is riven with cranky potholes, more crabby than funny. I've read quite a few of Bryson's travel tales, and this will rank last among them.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Return to Bag End

On March 25th, by the reckoning of the Shire,  the Ring of Power was cast into the Cracks of Doom and the vicious horde facing the Men of the West melted away.  I would it would be appropriate, therefore, to finish the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the tail end of March.  When I began the trilogy back in 2014, I did so mostly to see what the fuss was about, since authors like Isaac Asimov raved about Tolkien. (Following Asimov has also introduced me to Sherlock Holmes and P.G. Wodehouse. He's a good guide.)   Finishing The Two Towers invested me in the journey, though; when I started reading Return of the King,  I earnestly wanted to experience the triumphant end.

There were surprises in store for me. For instance, I didn't realize how early on the Ring would be destroyed: I'd rather fancied the ending would be like (and I am truly sorry for this analogy) The Phantom Menace:  while the army of free creatures faces down a horde of beasts and is slowly sloughed away, the plucky heroes struggle along on Mount Doom and finally fling the Ring into its belly. The enemy's heart is cut out, and the horde collapses just before the good guys are completely routed and Sauron reduced to a naked baby-thing at a celestial Kings Cross station.  (I think I wandered away from my allusion there...)  Anyhoo, that's not what happened, as those who've read the book know. There's fifty pages of story after that point, and the "Scouring of the Shire", which I'd heard of and assumed was the consequence of Sauron's army running amok, takes place after the big bad is dispatched.

I truly enjoyed the writing, especially when the heroic company return to Hobbiton and find out that it has been subjected to that dreadful malady, Government -- complete with taxes and prohibition.  After a sheriff reads out a long list of crimes, Sam suggest he add more, like calling 'the chief' names and wishing to punch his pimply face. In due time the jumped-up reeves are run off, their boss is dispatched by his own minion, and Sam returns to his own garden, the only realm he has any interest in ruling.   Now that I've completed the epic, I look forward to watching the movies for the first time.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Lincoln Lawyer

The Lincoln Lawyer
© 2005 Michael Connelly
404 pages

Mickey Haller is a lawyer on the move, a criminal defender whose clients are so numerous and widespread that he conducts business from the backseat of his Lincoln Towncar.  For him, the law isn't a calling. It's a business, and the entire legal apparatus is a machine that he manipulates as best he can to the advantage of his clients. He is a charmer, a hustler -- and when a big ticket comes along, he jumps. Who wouldn't want a case to milk for a couple of years?  But Louis Roulet, a Hollywood real estate mogul who is accused of beating and attempting to rape a call girl, will be more than he bargained for.  While Haller  maintains his greatest fear is an innocent client, one who presents real consequences for failure, in Roulet he will find something worse: genuine evil.  The Lincoln Lawyer mark's Connelly's stunningly successful swift from writing cops to writing law,  introducing  a new character to his grimy Los Angeles.

I heard of this book because reviews for Grisham's Rogue Lawyer described it as a pale imitation of The Lincoln Lawyer.  Those reviews are dead-on, because while both use similar elements -- starring a cynical lawyer who works from his car, arguing with his ex-wife and being driven around by a client-turned-bodyguard -- Connelly is far superior in both plotting and story.  Haller may be cynical about the machine he operates, but he isn't a character who inspires despair.  His relationship with both of his ex-wives is cordial, even sweet;  his friends are genuine, and he, true to them. Ultimately, Haller is defiant of evil, not resigned to it.  The mechanics of the novel are far better, too. Connelly's usual pace is fast, perilous, and unpredictable, like a sprint through dark city streets, weaving through alleys and dodging blows from sinister corners. Haller soon realizes he is in over his head, as the nature of his client becomes obvious, but even while he is being dragged into unknown territory, he's crafting a possible escape that is hid from the reader. In the later courtroom scenes, when Haller steps into a testimonial minefield, it isn't know whether he saw the danger and tempted it, or planned  the provocation. The action doesn't conclude until the very last couple of pages, but Connelly's skill at keeping the reader engaged means there's no dramatic exhaustion.  I didn't expect Connelly to write law as well as he did law enforcement, but...wow, Harry Bosch has met his match. (Harry's taste in music is far superior to Halley's, though.)

The Mickey Haller series is definitely one I'll be looking to for future legal thrills.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

And now, the News

There seem to be very few reasons not to despair of the human race. If asked why it has decided to tell us all this, and is driving us more than a little made as a result, the news will soberly reply that it has no choice, It simply has a duty to tell us 'the truth'.   Yet this isn't entirely true.  In any nation at any given point there is a welter of conflicting evidence about what is going on in the land. Some people will be drawn to murdering partners who have been unfaithful with a meat cleaver, but the majority will tearfully and angrily muddle along. Some people will riot and vomit in the streets, break shop windows, and run off with looted spirits, but most will be keener to trim back the flowers in the garden or keep things tidy in the kitchen.  There is a plethora of headlines that would both be true and yet impossible to run:

"Man abandons rash plan to kill wife after brief pause."
"65 million people go to bed every night without murdering or hitting anyone."

We should remember that the news is ultimately only one set of stories about what is happening out there, no more and no less.  
Our nation isn't just a severed hand, a mutilated grandmother, three dead girls in a basement, embarrassment for a minister, trillions of debt, a double suicide at a railway station and a fatal five-car crash by the coast. 
It is also the cloud floating right now unattended by the church spire, the gentle thought in the doctor's mind as he approaches the patient's bare arm with a needle, the field mice by the hedgerow, the small child tapping the surface of a newly hard-boiled egg while her mother looks on lovingly, the nuclear submarine patrolling the maritime borders with efficiency and courage, the factory producing the first prototypes of a new kind of engine, and the spouse who, despite extraordinary provocation and unkind words, discovers new reserves of patience and forgiveness. 
This, too, is reality, The news we are given about the nation is not the nation.

The News: A User's Manual, Alain de Botton. pp. 43-45

Pilgrim's Progress

Pilgrim's Progress in Today's English
© 1678 John Bunyan,   retold 1971 James Thomas
285 pages

Years ago I read Pilgrim’s Progress,  the story of one Christian’s spiritual journey made physical. The story begins when a man named Graceless, soon to be called Christian, learns from a book that his city is doomed to destruction.  Weeping, he is given hope by a passing stranger, Evangelist, who tells him there is a way out of this doom. Through the narrow wicket gate there is a road, passing by a cross, that leads to the Celestial Kingdom. If he follows it, he will find a land where joys shall never end – but the going will not be easy. There will be monsters along the way, fellow travelers who both support and distract,  misleading trails, and dens of scum and villainy.   Loaded with a burden, Christian sets forth, albeit without his unwilling wife and children.  Although there is a fantastical structure – Christian traveling from a land ruled by a princess of darkness to a kingdom of grace and love – with fight scenes, the work is largely conversation and argument.  The biblically  well-versed will notice characters quoting from or alluding to the Psalmists and the Epistles even the characters are not conscious of it.  Biblical metaphors are here made physical: Christian literally dons ‘the armor of god’, and enemies of the soul literally attack our journeyman, like the giant Despair.  

As a child I read this for the adventure, and much of the theological debate was lost on me (if even included in a kid’s version), but naturally now I’m reading more for substance.  I was astonished  by the amount of imagery I remembered from my youth. . I found Bunyan’s writing largely communicative; he made a relatively opaque passage in Romans about the Mosaic law’s relation to sin more comprehensible, for instance. It’s the work of Protestant rather than traditional theology, with a long-defeated monster called Pope appearing alongside his co-loser, Pagan. Given that the book is mostly discussion, it's obviously more attractive as a devotional rather than as a fantasy-adventure.  I suspect the 'modern' retelling is slightly abridged, but it's the only version my library has.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Words worth Reading

From A Literary History of Ireland:

"Of all the tribes of the Celts, and indeed of all their neighbours in the west of Europe, the children of Milesius have been at once blessed and cursed beyond their fellows, for on the shores of their island alone did the Roman eagle check its victorious flight, and they alone of the nations of western Europe were neither moulded nor crushed into his own shape by the conqueror of Gaul and Britain. 
Undisturbed by the Romans, unconquered though shattered by the Norsemen, unsubdued though sore-stricken by the Normans, and still struggling with the Saxons, the Irish Gael alone has preserved a record of his own past, and preserved it in a literature of his own, for a length of time and with a continuity which outside of Greece has no parallel in Europe." 

p. 17 © 1899 Douglas Hyde

I literally chanced upon this passage when I pulled the first Irish-lit volume I spied on the shelves and opened it up.   Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Armed and Dangerous

Under and Alone: The Hunt for One of America's Most Wanted Criminals
© 2007 William Queen and Douglas Century
224 pages

When William Queen started as an ATF agent in the Los Angeles area, all the cops around agreed on one thing:  enemy #1 was that psycho who lived in the mountains, Mark Stephens.  He wasn't part of a gang, and he didn't have a pattern. He simply appeared from the wilderness every few weeks to stick pistols into the mouths of dope dealers and demand his money.  While he hadn't managed to kill anyone yet, he was an object of terror to cop and criminal alike, and daredevil Queen knew this was a man that needed taking down.   Armed and Dangerous is a semiautobiographical account of the months Queen spent working on a case against Stephens,  with reports of other busts mixed in, like that of a raid against a gang of skinheads.   To infiltrate them, Queen used a persona he'd been playing around with, that of a southern biker with fondness for dope and tenuous ties to a Klan-based organization. (That persona would become his full-time identity later on when he infiltrated the Mongols, recorded in Under and Alone)

 Although Queen's account builds toward finally convincing his bosses that infiltrating the mountain wilderness and hunting for Stephens' camp is worthwhile, Stephens' actual arrest is tame  after the dangerous climb and the escape amid a forest fire.  What isn't tame is William Queen himself,  a Vietnam special forces vet who tried racing until it proved too expensive a hobby.  He's definitely an adrenaline junkie, but happily his energies are targeted against actual psychopaths instead of blowing up people's homes to serve warrants, warrior-cop style.   This is a fast read, and not as substantial as Under and Alone, but fitting if you're in the mood for eighties cops heroics.

Under and Alone: the True Story of the Undercover Agent Who Infiltrated America's Most Violent Outlaw Motorcycle Gang, William Queen

Spring Cleaning

The wind is blowing, the trees are in leaf, and I sense spring is on the way. Well, good! Not that this winter has been particularly bad, but spring has far better scenery.  I spent this past weekend cleaning while listening to an audio version of The Importance of Being Earnest, and then took in a local play at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. The play was "White Lightning", and celebrated the moonshine-running origins of stockcar racing. The closest I've come to watching NASCAR is watching Cars, but I enjoyed the play enormously, featuring as it did one of my favorite ASF actors, Rodney Clark.

There's actually a book on this subject called Driving with the Devil that -- so help me -- I might actually go for. Not that I'm suddenly all afire about racing, but who can't appreciate a history of rescuing ardent spirits from the law?

Continuing and completing the spree of science books lately was E.O. Wilson's  The Social Conquest of Earth.  The book examines 'eusociality' as practiced by both humans and insects.  Eusociality involves a trascendent social order that is sustained by passing generations, with a high degree of specialization.   Wilson is one of the grand old men of biology, the effective founder of the sociobiological discipline. After dealing with the whole of natural human history in chapter one, Wilson uses his extensive insect experience to explain what eusociality is and how it might have evolved. He then speculates on what biological basis culture, art, etc. might be derived from.  I found parts of the book, like the extended debate between inclusive fitness and kin selection as evolutionary drivers, a touch esoteric, and probably would have enjoyed the book more if I'd hadn't gone into it expecting to read more than about humans and termites.

Shortly before that, I read Unnatural Selection, comments for which are forthcoming. This week I'm finishing up a social history of the Scotch-Irish, called....The Scotch-Irish: A Social History.    It was part of an intended nod toward St. Patrick's day, though there's no way in blazes I'm finishing The Year of the French in time for tomorrow.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Dixie's Forgotten People

Dixie's Forgotten People: the South's Poor Whites
© 1979 Wayne Flynt
200 pgs

Just poor people is all we were, tryin' to make a living out of black land dirt..

When Franklin Roosevelt referred to the forgotten man, he was likely thinking of those men in the city's breadlines. The South, however, was home to a host of forgotten men: poor whites, who lost in the land-grab and who industrialism largely left behind. Dixie is a quick survey into the realm of rural white poverty,  succeeded wholly by Flynt's own Poor But Proud. Despite its brevity,  it provides both flavor and substance.

Myths about displaced Norman cavaliers fleeing England to restore the old order in the South not withstanding, most poor whites came from the same stock as those men who became the masters -- at least those in the 'core south', where Flynt primarily draws from.  They emerged as economic losers, families who either arrived late and got the leftovers or soil that had already been picked clean, or who were out-done by the rising gentry creating their vast fiefdoms.  The Civil War left them with even more crushing poverty in the form of tenant farming, and the ruined south was hard to transform into the "new", industrialized south.  A fierce contempt for accepting charity from outsiders frustrated well-meaning missionaries and social reformers, but they were not altogether left behind.  Some tried to escape rural poverty by working in the mills, which were often more dangerous and no guarantor of comfort, and others lobbied for more political power.   Some even overcame racism to create an race-blind tenant farmers union;  from such a union came the latter Civil Rights marching song, "We Shall Overcome".   Racial cooperation in the realm of labor was one of the dashed hopes of the 19th century populist age, however.  The world wars were kind to the South, bringing more industry and money, but the interwar years consisted of an economic slump so dismal that the Great Depression wasn't even noticed.   While the South as a whole became more productive with the advent of machinery,  added jobs constituted only a quarter of those lost to the machines. After World War 2, the Southern economy finally quickened, but many still remain left behind -- especially in Appalachia, which receives a section unto itself.

Dixie's Forgotten People isn't two hundred pages of labor struggles with a southern twang, though, for he also shares the genuine life of the people. Using interviews with adults remembering their youth, Flynt records here folk stories and music. The music shared is that which is fraught with meaning -- melodies that comment on the plight of the family, of working for nothing but trouble, of hoping for rest and relief in the world to come.  The religion of the rural poor was overtly otherworldly,  constantly challenging the elite with the threatening promise that one day the first would be last, and the meek would inherit the earth.  (If "meek" is the  right word for  estatic snake handlers and Pentecostal preachers in unions..) Some of that culture even became mainstream, in the form of country-western, but as it became popular it lost the edge born of desperate poverty and anger. (This is a trend that has fast continued, with 'country' singers slipping into the pop charts with ease, a la Taylor Swift.)   Despite their poverty, the subjects retain a spine -- they are, to borrow Flynt's later title, 'poor but proud'.  Some of that pride, in racial myths, is misplaced, but much of it is legitimate, invested in the rich musical and artistic heritage that was saved from homogeneity by the mountains of Appalachia and dismal transportation.  Now, with interstates and cookie-cutter suburbs sprawling across the South's coastal plains and rugged hills, one wonders if that heritage itself will become the forgotten Dixie instead of just its poor -- lost to ticky-tacky McAmerica,

In short, Dixie's Forgotten People was a quick and varied survey, albeit one supplanted by the weightier Poor But Proud.  Considering that most people think of that obscene film Deliverance when they think of the country poor, Flynt's time spent with them is well needed among American readers.


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

All Other Nights

All Other Nights
© 2009 Dara Horn
400 pages

Why is this night different than all other nights?  Well, for starters, Joseph Rappaport is going to poison his uncle, on suspicion that he is plotting to kill Abraham Lincoln.   That move is the beginning of Rappaport’s career as an intelligence agent, using his family connections to infiltrate a Southern spy ring.  All Other Nights  is the enthralling story that emerges as he descends deeper into the shadows, finding – even as his body collects injuries from narrow escapes – a purpose worth living for.   Although running away from an arranged marriage at his father’s hands puts Rappaport into the ranks of the Union army,   it is when he tasked with seducing and marrying a young woman undermining the Federal campaign that the story fully begins.

Romance and work are a poor mix, as Rappaport soon finds. He wins the affections of his dazzling spy-rival,  a star of the theater who excels in sleight of hand. Her theft of his heart, however, is no parlor trick. The war makes a tragedy of their love, however,  doomed as their work was toward mutual self-destruction.  Joseph is soon broken in heart and body, marooned in the Tennessee wilderness.   A chance connection leads him to realize that not all hope is lost, however, and soon he is back in Virginia,  at the side of the Confederate Secretary of State, Judah Benjamin. His masquerade is two-fold, however;  while posing as a Confederate agent and gathering information for the Union, his true purpose in returning to Richmond is to find the family he helped destroy and save them and what little he feels of his soul from further ruin.

What a fascinating novel this is!  There's a touch of small-world coincidence, but it's handled deftly enough.  Joseph’s Jewish heritage isn’t just character flavoring;  the book opens at a Passover seder, the remembrance of Hebrews escape from Egyptian bondage the call for retribution.  Most of what Rappaport does throughout the novel is escape – flee the obligations his father seeks to impose on him,  out-run the consequences of his own actions – but  once he loses an eye he begins to see his way more clearly,  embracing a new life for himself even as Richmond burns.  The story thus combines historic espionage (ciphers, messages hidden in riding crops) and agonizing soul searching. There's romance here, but unlike other authors Ms. Horn doesn't force a play-by-play on the readers. She teases, as characters gaze at one another longingly, and then discretely moves on.  It has substance, too too, for Jacob's is a love discovered accidentally and kindled slowly.  The final scene is a true finish, one that complete's Jacob's growth as a man capable of decision, not merely running or obeying masters above.

This is one of the best Civil War novels I've read in a long, long time.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Wisdom of the Myths

Wisdom from the Myths: How Greek Mythology Can Change Your Life
© 2014 Luc Ferry
416 pages

Well over a year or so ago, in a mood to read about the classical tradition, I happened upon Wisdom from the Myths: How Greek Mythology Can Save Your Life. Well, that seemed serendipitous, to say the least, despite the fact that the last time I read Ferry he was rather underwhelming.  That mood passed, but it's come round again, and so this weekend I enjoyed Ferry's introduction to the Greek mythos. Wisdom from the Myths is two things;  Ferry retells the major stories of Greek mythology, patching them together from Homer and the dramatists, but brings them together to argue that they constitute a coherent worldview.  This is one of an orderly  universe in which man has a definite role as a member of a polis. (Odysseus' journey is read then as a spiritual one, with the hero confronting the death of his identity when tempted by Calypso. He may remain with her as an immortal, but in so doing would destroy every aspect of what makes him human -- his identity as a father, a son, a husband, a king...a mortal, whose glory is in living well in the face of death.) The cosmos' order is nearly self-correcting in that most negative behavior results in self-destruction, though it does seem to require the occasional hand from Zeus through his agents, Heracles and those who are aware of this unitive order.  As in A Brief History of Thought, Ferry turns again and again to Stoicism, which he views as the fulfillment of this worldview.  Ferry is not a Stoic, but quite sympathetic. He's unusual in that he champions a secular worldview but takes mythology and philosophy seriously, as more than just-so stories and naval-gazing.  He manages to go almost the entire book without overly arcane references, a triumph for an academic.   I enjoyed this far more than A Brief History of Thought, at least as a recap of Greek mythology with a Stoic bent, but the title is overblown.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Spin Me Right Round, Baby

Every so often the Classics Club does a 'spin' challenge, in which players post a list of twenty books from their classics-to-be-read pile, number it, and wait. After we've had a few days to post the list, the folks at the Classics Club blog issue a number. Whatever number they draw, that's the book to be read next.   So, here's twenty items from my list, and I await Monday with anticipation!

  1. The Aenid, Virgil
  2. The Histories, Herodotus
  3. The Conquest of Gaul, Julius Caesar
  4. One Thousand and One Nights, trans. Husain Haddawy
  5. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo
  6. Inferno, Dante
  7. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
  8. The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan
  9. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
  10. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
  11. The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams
  12. Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain 
  13. Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington
  14. Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
  15. O Pioneers!  Willa Cather
  16. White Fang, Jack London
  17. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
  18. The Jungle, Upton Sinclair
  19. East of Eden, John Steinbeck
  20. The Moviegoer, Walker Percy

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Fin Gall

Fin Gall: A Novel of Viking-Age Ireland
© 2013 James Nelson
290 pages

When a Danish longboat happened upon a small Irish craft on the rough seas , it found more than quick booty.  Onboard the boat was the Crown of the Three Kingdoms, a priceless artifact more precious for its political import than for its jewels. Whomever was granted the Crown gained the allegiance of the major kingdoms of Ireland; what price in gold or influence would the Irish tribes pay to have it restored?  Alas for the crew of the Red Dragon, the Irish weren't the only ones fighting among themselves-- for Dubh-linn, a booming Danish ship-fort, has been taken by the Norwegians!  So begins Fin Gall, a story of medieval war and adventure amid frantic infighting.

 In a surprisingly crowded field of Viking fiction,  Fin Gall distinguishes itself through its Irish setting and the well-crafted naval scenes.   The fractious nature of Ireland, made worse by competing Scandinavian clans crafting alliances with and against the Irish tribes, provides the basis of the plot. One Irish lord has been named chief, another resents it; one Norse lord wants to dominate Ireland,  an underling resents it;  much backstabbing ensues. The Red Dragons spend the book tripping over entangled alliances,  brawling, and hustling away.   The lead character, Thorgrim Nightwolf, is an interesting sort, so cunning that his men think he can transform into a wolf and gain a foretaste of the future through his dreams. His motives throughout the novel are refreshingly decent:  though he has come to Ireland to raid and plunder, he spends most of the book trying to keep his son Harold and an elder relation safe from Norwegians, Irish princes, and women. There's a lot of pungent boasting, though not quite as riotous as Cornwell's, and two back-to-back sex scenes which little changes but the name of the Irish lass involved.  Those Irish ladies are the weakest point here: they both encounter captive Danes, both help them escape for private motives, and both wind up randomly sleeping with the Dane in question.  The play-by-play is not especially awkward, but anything beyond "And they went to bed" is more information than I care to read.   After much danger has been out-lived, through both wit and luck, the book ends with a nice hook for the next novel: Dubh-Linn.

I'll definitely be pursuing this series, as both of its 'hooks' are well-set for me. Most Viking fiction I've read takes place far inland, but this had a multitude of maritime scenes, and they made the savage sea really come alive. I also appreciated the way the Irish were handled here in general,  aside from the two women who blurred together.  They will probably become more distinct in further books, especially considering that one is a princess with a Danish in the oven.


Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray
© 1890 Oscar Wilde
180 pages

Dorian Gray is the picture of youthful innocence, but his portrait is one of deathly corruption. After sitting for a painting rendered by his friend Basil, Dorian becomes a source of infatuation for himself.  Awed by his own beauty, Dorian is driven to angst by the sight of his own beauty and confesses that he would do anything, even give his soul, if the figure in the painting would age instead of himself.   Through such a Faustian bargain, the portrait becomes Gray's hidden self, his conscience  reflecting the ugliness within as he becomes increasingly self-obsessed. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a tale of sin and degradation, of a man's destruction -- the fulfillment of the teacher's exhortation in Ecclesiastes that all is vanity.

Although The Picture of Dorian Gray ends in death, being the literary account of a moral crash-and-burn,  Wilde's wit makes for numerous fun moments. There is a bitterness to the laughs,  the vicious humor; the many stabs taken at society and middle class morality are strikes rendered by truly vicious men,  individuals who commit murder and abandon themselves to moral chaos. Many witticisms attributed to Wilde are placed in here the mouth of the malicious Lord Henry, like "The only way to get rid of a temptation is yield to it."  One hopes that few readers look for wisdom from the likes of Henry, who is such a profoundly dismal influence that the painter Basil begs him not to corrupt young Dorian. (Alas for Bas, soon Dorian will be doing the corrupting...and to such an extent that many of his deeds can't be named directly, but alluded to only by the fact that people leave the room when he arrives.)    During at least two points in the work, Dorian wavers at a moral crossroads, but at both times he only slides further into the pit, unable to free himself from his one fixation: self-adulation.

Gray is a curious accomplishment,  humorful but with a great sadness. Gray's obsession with himself, his surrounding of himself with trivial amusements, are haunting.  For all his pleasures taken, for all the pursuit given to making himself feel good, Dorian at the end is worse for the wear. The one character who remains interested in his person -- Henry again -- does so because Dorian is an amusing spectacle.  Even the man who encouraged him on his descend will not accompany him on it, merely watch coldly from above.  Selfishnesss reigns. In a world filled with trivial amusements, and now more than ever obsessed with perpetual youth, Dorian Gray remains a warning.  In both art and substance, Wilde's sole novel commends itself to the modern reader.

Mephisto, Klaus Mann